The new Innovation Factory in the University Center gives University of Montana students the opportunity to be creative using new and inventive technology.
The Innovation Factory, which was added to the UC on Nov. 8, is located on the second floor of the UC and is filled with 3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters, sewing machines, digital embroidery, tools for branding and everyday workshop materials, like clamps and hammers.
Dillon Weickum started working as an intern, or “IFtern,” with the Innovation Factory in the spring of 2019. He spent his summer fixing and replacing parts on 3D printers and other equipment. Now he maintains equipment and teaches other IFterns how it works. As a senior in the fine arts program, Weickum often uses equipment like the 3D printer and the laser cutter to help prepare his senior showcase.
“The work I wanted to make for a long time, I just didn’t have access to equipment like this,” said Weickum. “It totally changed the way I make art, the way I think about art. As artists, the more tools you have, the more your work can evolve and change, and I think it’s good for artists to work in multiple mediums and disciplines and processes.”
Art professors Brad Allen and Elizabeth Dove head the the Innovation Factory as co-directors. Allen said the factory collected most of the pieces of equipment from across campus. Much of the equipment was underused because nobody was there to teach others how to use it, he said.
Most of the equipment is on loan. Some of the 10 3D printers come from the education and art departments, and the $100,000 3D scanner, typically used to scan bones and artifacts, is on loan from the anthropology department.
Dove said she purchased the two Singer sewing machines on sale, for just over $100 each. Dove also got a deal on the $3,000 digital embroidery machine, a device she said can easily be $9,000 at retail cost. There is also a 3-foot-wide industrial scale laser cutter, good for experimenting on multiple kinds of material, including creating rips on jeans. Allen said the first piece they acquired was the vinyl cutter, which the President’s Office purchased for them. This tool can be used to make giant stickers for branding and logos, like the one on the front door of the Innovation Factory.
Allen said those running the Innovation Factory want it to differ from other places on campus with similar equipment, like the 3D printing at PawPrint. He said their goal is to teach the process of how to use the equipment, rather than turning out a product. Because of this, the Innovation 3D printers have a faster nozzle flow rate, meaning thicker and stronger layers of material come out quicker. Allen said they are sacrificing resolution, but the speed is better for prototyping.
“There’re so few pieces of equipment in here, this will never be about mass production,” Allen said. “Being firm about that opens the space up for more creativity, more integration, more prototyping and more ideas to flow through it.”
Many of the supplies are repurposed or recycled. Tables in the WorkLab are from Facilities Services Building 25, UM’s surplus building. The green and orange chairs are the UC’s old furniture, before the space was updated. White boards are balanced on coat racks from ShopKo. Scraps are cut down and sorted into piles, which are reused for the smaller-scale sticker cutter.
There are also 3D recycling bins of sorted leftover plastic parts from the 3D printers, which can then be repurposed as spools of raw material, which Allen said no one else is doing in Missoula. As material is grinded down, particles like coffee beans or wood can be added. Dove said the material can also be reshaped into various textiles for cosplay and costumes.
The 3D recycling, laser and vinyl cutters and many of the 3D printers are in the WorkLab, but the Tinkerspace is part of in the main front room of the Innovation Factory. The Tinkerspace is used more as a stepping stone to the WorkLab, where people can take things apart and go at their own pace to understand the machines.
There are many tools in this area, like 3D modeling software, sewing stations, modeling clay and robotics, like remote control cars. There is also a 3D optics area that contains the digital embroidery machine and X-ray lightbox.
The Liquid Galaxy is also in the main room, on loan from the geography department. Multiple screens form a semicircle, creating a panoramic view of Google Earth in 3D. The program can also be used as a visualization tool for mapping assets or projecting data for student research, like global deforestation rates. This machine is one of the just over 30 that have been installed in locations or at events in the United States.
“There are too many scripted experiences at the University. There are very few experiences that are open-ended and encourage ambiguity and that aren’t always derivative of a particular outcome,” Allen said. “I think something like this will free up creativity and might help you think about the world in a different way.”
Allen said eventually there will be a cost to access the WorkLab. The fee is not for profit, but rather for replacing parts and maintaining machines, like the $600 laser tube inside the laser cutter. He said people will also need to bring their own material, like ordering acrylic off of Amazon. He said they also want to start a volunteer program, where people can work 20 hours a week and then get to take a machine, like a 3D printer, home to practice.
Starting Nov. 22, the Innovation Factory will be hosting workshops on using the equipment, starting with the vinyl cutter. Allen said they want everyone who experiments in the Worklab to be badged, meaning they are relatively trained in what they are doing. He said they also plan on getting feedback from users on the most and least used equipment, and hope to bring in more tools, like an industrial-scale 3D printer that could be used to make furniture, or finding a way to create prosthetics.